The innovators

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  If you don’t know anything about Isaacson, he’s written biographies about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, but several of his other books are more about groups of people who have played a role in some way – one book, titled American Sketches, is about some of the great leaders and creative thinkers of our society.

The InnovatorsThe Innovators has the subtitle “How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.”  This book caught my attention for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve always been something of an early adopter of technology.  I love to check out new and exciting innovations.  A second reason that this caught my attention is that I’m always curious about how people made the leaps to take us from the earliest computers (devices that took up entire rooms in the basement of college buildings or at military bases), to the technology that I can hold in my hand every time I pick up my iPhone.

Innovation is something that we often think of in terms of those big leaps.  When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school was renovated, and one of the classrooms was converted into a computer lab.  The first time we walked into the computer lab as a class, we saw a room with about 30 IBM computers.  The only thing that I remember being able to do on those computers was a keyboarding program that began the process of teaching me to type.  For me, this felt like a HUGE innovation.  Little did I know how much more our students would be able to do in the future.

The chapter that I am reading right now is all about software, and one of the big names in the development of computer software was Bill Gates.  Early in the chapter is a quote from him about what an innovator is:

An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore can be viewed as a bit unbalanced.

Reading about Gates, and many of the others who appear in the book, I can see how this definition certainly applies to innovators.  Here’s the thing though – I think there are times that you could substitute the word teachers for innovators and that definition would still work (I know my friends think I’m a little unbalanced to spend so much of my time with 10, 11, and 12 year olds!).  We are all something of a fanatic about what we do – we’re fanatics for our kids.  We love them, we want to help them learn and grow, and we want them to be successful.  I know that our efforts to get there make us all feel a little unbalanced at times.

One of the things that I have taken away from the book The Innovators is that the transition to the digital revolution was NOT made up of several giant leaps.  Instead, the innovations that have led to the amazing technology that I am able to carry in my pocket has happened because of little steps layered on top of one another.  And more often than not, those innovations were not made by any one person.  People such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page (along with so many others) all played important roles in the digital revolution, but the steps of each of these people built on the ideas of others.

We as teachers need to remember that as fanatics, it may not always be easy to get our students to learn and grow as quickly as we want them to.  They may not be immediately successful, but if we continue to innovate in our teaching, if we continue to try to reach kids in new and exciting ways, we are going to be able to reach more of them.  We also need to remember the value in teamwork for our students to learn.  Just as so many of the innovators mentioned above found success by building on the ideas of others, you may find success with a student through strategies others share with you. Whether it be a teammate, your PLC team, someone down the hall, or any one of the multitude of other people in the building, there are others who might have an idea that helps you get that kid to move forward.

What are some of the things that you are fanatical about?  Have you ever tried something new that seemed to be the key to reaching that kid?  Share you experiences in the comments below!

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What is school for?

Put yourself back in one of your childhood classrooms – at the beginning of the day what was it that your teacher always said?  If it’s anything like my childhood experience, it was something like “Good morning class.” Then what would happen?  The whole class would respond “Good morning…”  And what happened if you weren’t loud enough, or respectful enough?

I think we all have lived that situation – and I may even have been guilty of fulfilling the teacher role (as recently as the first day of school… THIS YEAR!!!).  But here’s the question, what are we teaching with that call and response open to the day?  It’s mostly about teaching obedience.  Traditionally, the common school was built to prepare children to become the factory workers of the future.  Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, schools taught students to be obedient, to hold a little back, to do the work assigned and nothing more.

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.So that brings us to the bigger question: What is school for?  While some of our students may consider a role in manufacturing, the factories of today are way different than the ones of the early to mid 1900s that led to this factory model of education.  Many of our students will not be heading down the path of manufacturing, so that factory model of school definitely doesn’t apply.  If you believe that innovation is going to keep happening (and why wouldn’t it?), then we’re preparing our students for an ever changing world!  That is so different from the traditional model of school as a factory.  In an excellent TED Talk by Seth Godin, he gives 8 examples of things school should be doing:

  1. Homework during the day, lectures at night – flipped learning
  2. Open note and open book all the time – if it’s important enough to memorize, it’s also ok to have to look it up
  3. Access – any course at any time – programs like Kahn or MOOCs can achieve this
  4. Precise focused education – not a one size fits all model
  5. No multiple choice – life isn’t multiple choice
  6. Experiences instead of test scores – learning is focused on the experiences that take place inside (and outside) of our classroom
  7. End of compliance as an outcome – while compliance may be needed at times, it shouldn’t be our end goal
  8. Cooperation instead of isolation – the ability to work with others

I could go into more detail on each of these, but I can’t do any better than what Godin did in his talk, so if you’d like to know more about any of these things, check out that TED Talk here.

So here’s my answer to the question “What is school for?”: I want our students to be equipped to go out into the world and make something that has an impact on their lives and the lives of others.  And I want them to know that if they get stuck, to ask for help and support.  While we might not always have all the answers, hopefully we can help our student to find the answers.

I’m curious to hear your answers – for you, what is school for?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Childhood trauma

Last weekend I was listening to the most recent episode of the TED Radio Hour, a radio show that is based on a common theme, and then embeds portions of TED Talks, as well as interviews with the people who gave those talks around that central theme.  The episode I was listening was titled “Hardwired” (click here if you’d like to listen to the episode), which was looking at how human behavior is based on both our genetics, as well as our experiences in life.

One of the speakers who is included in this episode is Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco.  After listening to her portion of the radio show, I had to watch her full TED Talk.  In her talk “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” she talks about the unbelievable impact that trauma can have on childhood brains, as well as the long term health impacts of those who have lived through trauma.

Many of us are tempted to say “that doesn’t happen here.”  I challenged you to watch the TED Talk and think a little more critically about what Harris has to say about trauma.  This does happen here.  There are students who walk into our school every day who have faced adversity that has an impact on their brain development.  Next week, I’ll follow up with a little more of my thoughts on trauma in kids, but I hope you will find the time to watch this excellent TED Talk.

Make it meaningful

I was recently directed to an interesting article by Zachary Johnson titled “Bored Out of Their Minds” (click here to access the article).  While there were several aspects to the article that I connected with, and lots of interesting data and statistics about students’ engagement, one passage in particular stood out to me.

“But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Parts of this quote come from Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  I read the book last fall, and wrote a couple of posts on the ideas learned from the book here: Part 1; and here: Part 2.  The idea of the book is that the “average person” just doesn’t exist – there is jaggedness to us all.  The implications of this jagged profile for educators is that we have to remember that no matter what label a student may carry, they all have strengths and weaknesses.  We can’t expect our students to fit into specific characteristics that we place on them.

What leads kids to disconnect as they grow older?  One of the things that Johnson brings up is that as students grow older, they have less and less choice in what they do.  I think back to my own educational career – in elementary school we were given great leeway to dig into the topics that interested us.  I was free to choose what books I wanted to read (my sixth grade reading log would show lots of Stephen King novels), what topics I wanted to research for the science fair, and how I wanted to share my learning as we discussed European explorers visiting the “New World” – these are just a few of the choices I got to make.

This photo was titles “Boring Lecture, 1940s”
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dukeyearlook/2076633334/in/photostream/

By the time I got to high school free choice was mostly gone, most classes were lecture based.  Many of my class syllabi were the exact same as the ones that were used for the students before me, and the students before them.  I remember being checked out of my trigonometry class (sorry Mr. Petry), putting forth just enough effort to get through biology, and being bored out of my skull by the filmstrips that were shown on a daily basis in world geography (at least I could get extra credit by bringing in a box of Kleenex anytime we were running low).

So how do we help our students to stay connected to the learning that happens in our room?  The HSE21 Best Practice Model helps us to get there.  We can help provide the relevance for our students to see why it’s important to learn whatever it is that we’re doing in our classroom.  We can give our students choices in how they express their learning.  We can push our students to ask questions and wonder once they have seen the relevance in their learning – getting us to that inquiry driven study that we’re looking for.

As the summer approaches, take some time to reflect on the things that your students have done this year.  What are the things that worked best?  What are the things that fell flat?  With those things that were best, what was it that got the kids excited about learning?  And with those things that may not have been so great, how can you add more relevance and choice so that students may be better engaged?  Remember, as Johnson says above, engagement isn’t about entertainment, it’s about finding ways to make the curriculum more meaningful for every student.  I’d love to help you on that path!  If you have an idea and want someone to brainstorm with, let me know.  Two brains are always better than one!

What are some of your best engagement strategies?  How have you been able to get your students highly engaged in learning in your classroom this year?  Share with us in the comments below!

Cognitive load

How many times have you been in a conversation with a colleague, and they started giving you suggestions?  Each one sounds great, you think they could work in your room, but then you walk away from the conversation and nothing has stuck.  All those great ideas went in your ears, passed through your brain, and then disappeared into the ether.  No amount of thought can bring them back, and you feel embarrassed to go back to the colleague because you think that they might be offended that you didn’t remember the first time.

Created by Marshall Vandruff

For all of us, there’s this idea called cognitive load.  Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.  When you were talking with that colleague and they were sharing more and more ideas with you, it was causing your brain more and more of a cognitive load.  In that moment, your brain is kind of like a cup – it can only hold so much new information before it begins to overflow.

Now, if each of us struggles cognitively to hold on to multiple ideas in a short conversation, how does this translate to our students?  In a lot of the research on cognitive load in children, there is a clear difference between adult and child knowledge.  Because of the differences in knowledge, children have to make a greater effort to simply process what is coming in, which means that their cognitive load will be exceeded more quickly.

I know that there were times as a teacher when I might have a student ask me a question.  As I was answering the question, I might give more detail than was entirely necessary in order for students to better understand.  Then, a few minutes later the student would ask the same question.  At the time, it was frustrating – “Come on, I just told you that!” but I now understand that by giving the extra details, I was causing too heavy of a cognitive load on my students.

So, what does that mean for us?  As we talk with students – whether we are giving them feedback on classwork, discussing their behavior, or making suggestions, we need to keep it short and to the point.  In a recent post from Matt Miller, he suggested using the sandwich technique:

 

  • A compliment (positive feedback)
  • A change they could make
  • Another compliment (more positive feedback)

Is it possible that we could suggest 17 corrections?  Sure!  But if we make all 17 at one time, the student will be overwhelmed, and none will get done.  Pick your main point, your main concern, and focus on that.  Once the student has shown that they understand your initial change, then maybe attack one of the other 17 things.

Meaningful feedback to students is one of the best ways to increase learning outcomes for our students.  Give that feedback in the moment – while you’re walking around and peaking over shoulders, and keep it to the point.  Students will learn and grow.

What are some of the strategies you use to give feedback to your students?  Share with us in the comments below.  If you’re looking for a few new ways to give quick feedback to your students, check out this awesome post from Matt Miller:

10 strategies for lightning-quick feedback students can REALLY use

When should we try something new?

How many of you are like me, you see something cool that someone else is doing and you think “I want to try that!”  You may be hearing about a cool activity that a colleague is doing, or it might be seeing something on one of your social media accounts that you think would be great for your classroom.

Sometimes, once we are “into” the school year, it can be tempting to see a cool idea and think “I’ll look at that in the summer.”  Maybe you even go so far as to save the idea as a bookmark, or send yourself an email to keep in a folder in your inbox.  I know that happens to me.  Then what happens?  If you’re anything like me, you might actually go back to that folder or bookmark, but all the context is gone, and you don’t remember why you were so excited about the idea.  Or even worse, you might forget to ever go back to the bookmark or folder!  Please tell me that I am not alone in this!

Earlier in the spring semester, I was participating in a massive open online course led by the author of The Innovator’s MindsetGeorge Couros.  I’ve mentioned it in the blog before.  Couros is all about innovation in education – he defines innovation as things that are new AND better for learning.  During one of the activities for the course, there was a conversation between Couros and a couple of his guest hosts.  The question came up – “When is it best to try things that are new?”  While many of us would feel the temptation to wait until our next group of students so that we can set up expectations and “get it right,” Couros and others encouraged a different mindset.  Think about your current students.  How excited are they when you switch things up?  Something as simple as a new seating arrangement can be the biggest deal to your class.  If a new seating arrangement has such an impact, how might a new and exciting teaching method go?  How much might that accelerate the learning in your classroom?

As an added bonus, you have the benefit of trying something new with a group of kids that you actually know.  Does this activity seem to motivate that kid that you’re always trying to pull along?  Maybe you have a winner of an idea that you want to continue to play with and tweak.  On the other hand, if your kids don’t seem that into it, you know that the idea might not be the best, and you can quickly shift gears back to something that you know will probably work better.

At this point in the year, with so many things going on, and the general stress that goes with the approach of the end of the year, it can be comforting to say “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”  But here’s the thing, as our student’s attention begins to wain – they see the sunshine and recognize the warm weather, they start thinking about their spring/summer activities that are getting started – it can be difficult to maintain that high level of engagement in the best of situations.  Some of us, without thinking about it, react to that by lowering the cognitive load of our students.  We think that slightly lower expectations may lead to higher engagement.  So, how’s that working for you?

I know that these were choices that I sometimes made when I was in the classroom.  An extra video clip instead of a more challenging activity.  Maybe a simplified version of an activity so that my students could just get through it.  I think back to those choices, and wonder how many of my students I may have short changed in the last few weeks of school.

Keep pushing yourself to look for the new and better activities.  Instead of lowering expectations for students to keep them engaged, throw in a new and exciting activity to amp up the learning in your classroom and hopefully lead to higher engagement for all your students!

What cool new things are you thinking about trying as the end of the year approaches?  What hesitations do you have for trying something new at this time of the year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

What’s your why?

The vast majority of the people reading this blog are in the educational realm.  Whether you are a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, or you work in a school in some other way, something called you here.  Take just a moment to think about it, what was it that brought you to this point?

For me, when I think about what brought me into education, there are a few moments in my lifetime that stand out.  I remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gromer.  With her, the Maya Angelou quote to the right comes to mind.  There aren’t very many specific things I remember happening in her classroom, but I remember that I always felt welcome, and valued, and important.  I felt that if I wasn’t there, someone missed me, and some value was lost from the class.  While I had great teachers before her, and great teachers after, nobody ever made me feel as important in the classroom setting as Mrs. Gromer.

In high school, one of my stand out teachers was Señora Cease – she was my Spanish teacher for all three years that I took the class.  While I may not be fluent in Spanish today, I learned some valuable study skills that I don’t believe I would have learned anywhere else.  Learning a language came hard to me, and while some friends were valuable parts of my studying, her efforts and ideas in class gave me skills that translated to so many other areas.

Then I think about Professor Katz.  Easily the most entertaining professor that existed – I’ll put money on it.  He was a history professor at IU.  I had the luck of knowing him when I was young, which meant that when I walked into his class, I became an easy target of his.  In a lecture hall full of 400 students, he would find me no matter where I sat and ask my opinion.  While I am a fairly confident person now, I’m sure that term didn’t always describe me. On the first day of class he asked me a question, to which I responded in a noncommittal way.  His response “Are you asking me?  I was asking you.”  Professor Katz helped teach me to be confident in all that I do.  While many of the small groups were led by instructional assistants, I had the privilege of being in the group that Professor Katz led himself.  You had to know your stuff – there was no hiding from him.  In addition to confidence, Professor Katz taught me about preparation.

All of these pieces of my history in education are part of what I brought to my classroom.  I wanted to bring the warmth that Mrs. Gromer had – I wanted my students to know that they were valued and important in my classroom.  I would work to provide scaffolding to support students who were struggling, just as Señora Cease had done for me.  And I would challenge my students at times – push their thinking when I thought they were just giving me surface level knowledge – just as Professor Katz pushed me.

I’m sure there are other things that come from my history that led me to the role that I’m in now, but now, I have an even more important why.  I look at each of my kids.  They have such unique personalities.

Lainey is the quiet rule follower.  Last year she actually received a reminder from her teacher – just one – and she cried about it as soon as she walked in the house.  We still can’t talk about it for fear of another evening full of tears.  She’s also very intentional, to the point of perfection on some things, which causes her to work slowly and sometimes not complete her in class work or feel as though she is falling behind her peers.

On the other hand, there’s Brody.  He’s not in school yet, but he’s been going to preschool.  Brody’s curiosity is almost indescribable.  He’s constantly asking questions – Why? Why do they call it baseball?  What does that word mean?  Sometimes it’s almost exhausting to answer all the questions he has.  To go with that, he loves to play rough – there are a couple of times I thought he was going to take me out by the knees, and even though he’s grown up with a sister, and almost all the kids in the neighborhood around us are girls, he finds ways to get them to play rough as well.  I expect Brody to be a kid who will probably rush through things.  While on spring break last week, he was always asking what we were doing next, so excited to get on to that, that sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t enjoy what we were doing in the moment.

And I know that both Lainey and Brody will have challenges as they grow older.  School can be a difficult place for kids.  Lainey will have times that her perfection will cause her to fall behind others, while Brody will be so concerned about getting on to the next thing, that he’ll probably hand in a paper half completed with several mistakes.

I have hopes and dreams for these two.  I want the best for them.  And I know that if that is the way that I feel, then the parents who trust each of us with their children have similar types of hopes and dreams.  The faces that sit in our classrooms each day are their everything, and they want the best for their kids as well.

So while Mrs. Gromer, Señora Cease, and Professor Katz may be the past why that pushed me into education, and led me to be the teacher that I became, they aren’t the why that will push me moving forward.  The past isn’t going to push me to strive to go further.  The past isn’t what’s going to help me continue to learn and grow as an educator.  Instead, I rely on my kids to be the catalyst for that growth.  And each of the 1,000 kids who walk into our building each day becomes the fuel that keeps that learning and growth going.

So…  What’s your why?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what it is that drives you to do what you do.  Education isn’t easy, and we all need that why to push us!